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Better, faster, stronger

February 6, 2019

Nudging the joystick forward on the video game controller in his hands, Aidan Flaherty watched as the foot-high robot in front of him sprang to life. In a whirr of electric motors, the metal bot dug its four rubber wheels into foam pads arranged on the floor and zipped across the makeshift pen inside Ridgefield High School’s robotics classroom.

With a flick of his thumb, Flaherty sent the bot in a semicircle around a pen, scooping up tennis balls strewn on the floor and depositing them in a cage in the robot’s body.

“We spent the first week building the arm,” said Ryan Crist, 14, Flaherty’s teammate who stood beside him as he directed the robot up and onto a set of platforms meant to test its agility.

Crist and Flaherty’s bot was just one of the robots built by the students at the high school for Robotics I, a one-semester course.

The school recently got the go-ahead to add Robotics II to the list of available courses for students next year. That class, which will also be a semester long, will teach students more advanced mechanical design. They’ll also learn more advanced ways to program the robots to work on their own without a human pilot.

‘Erector sets’

Robots were put together by the students from a mix of kits supplied by the school. Sections of metal framing came with pre-drilled holes for screws and bolts, allowing students to build a basic frame. From there they could add electric motors and wheels or tank-like treads for mobility, and arms or claws for grabbing objects.

“It’s sort of like the old-school erector sets,” said teacher Michael Murphy.

As students build increasingly complicated robots, they’re required to keep detailed notes of what they did, including pictures and videos of different versions of their robots. They also have to include notes on the computer code they write to teach their robot to respond to their commands from a video game controller, and work on its own.

It’s the less fun part of the course, Murphy admitted, but it’s there for “establishing good engineering principals.”

Besides Robotics I, Murphy also runs an after-school robotics club, where two robotics teams compete against those from other schools.

Senior Austin Stietzel, 17, said the most challenging part of the course is getting a robot built within time constraints. Students have to “build it and code it for any issues,” he explained.

He said the course is flexible enough that it allows him to “get out of it what I put into it.”

“If I wanted to do something a little bit more advanced, Mr. Murph was really good about finding me an assignment,” Stietzel said.

Murfball

All of the students efforts culminates in a class-wide competition called Murfball.

Working in teams of two or three, students designed and built a robot from scratch; which they then entered in matches of two-versus-two robots. Students scored points for have their metal and wire creations complete tasks, such as climbing over obstacles, flipping over plastic disks, or snapping up tennis balls to deposit them in their team’s basket.

“We asked if we could steal from other baskets, Mr. Murphy said there’s no rule against it,” said Flaherty.

The class does not require students to have taken any prerequisite courses; “meaning students are not expected to come in with any prior knowledge and learn everything they need to design, build and program their unique creations in just half a year,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he encourages students interested in robotics to go on to take other courses the school offers in engineering, computer science, and digital electronics.

Stietzel, who said he’s interested in becoming a computer electrical engineer, said computer programming he learned in the course has helped in his computer science course, “but mostly it’s thinking through problems and solving them on your own,” he said.

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